The Treatment Of Angela Rayner Shows Parliament Has Serious Sexism Problems

Photo by Hollie Adams/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Angela Rayner is one of the most powerful women in Westminster. The deputy Labour leader and shadow minister of state for the Cabinet Office has been the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester since 2015. Her path to the corridors of power was not straightforward and unlike too many of our politicians, she was not born into a family where that trajectory was expected. 
Rayner, a self-described socialist, was thrown out of her family home aged 16 by her father so she got a job. She also had her first child aged 16. Arrive in Westminster on the production line of privately educated Oxbridge graduates she did not. 
As of 2019, a record number of MPs (52%) went to comprehensive state schools. This is progress but given that just 7% of people in Britain are privately educated, the fact that 48% of MPs went to private schools proves that parliament does not represent the majority of people in this country. 
This is why Rayner’s backstory matters. Particularly as she has been subjected to sexism in the press over the last week because, as usual, misogyny is used as a weapon when there is no other way of undermining a highly competent woman in public life. 
Last weekend, the Mail on Sunday reported that an anonymous Conservative MP had claimed that Rayner deliberately attempts to "distract" Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions by "crossing and uncrossing" her legs in an effort to throw him off his game.
"She knows she can’t compete with Boris’ Oxford Union debating training," the source patronisingly told the Mail on Sunday. "But she has other skills which he lacks. She has admitted as much when enjoying drinks with us on the [Commons] terrace."
Next to the article, an image of Sharon Stone pulled from the infamous leg-crossing scene in the 1992 film Basic Instinct gave the Mail’s readers the proverbial wink and nodded to the supposed lascivious power of women and our wily ways.
In just two sentences, this member of the Conservative Party had given a masterclass on outdated sexism and classism in Britain today. 
As Gloria Steinem once said: "Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon."
The comments made about Rayner speak to the fact that the Conservatives see her – an articulate and capable woman on the left of politics – as a threat. If you can't fault a woman on her ideas and abilities, the only thing you have left if you want to undermine her is to make lewd jokes by drawing attention to her sexuality. That is some men's most basic instinct.
It is not Rayner who is trying to distract the prime minister but, instead, the Conservatives who are trying to distract Rayner from doing her job of holding the government to account. Which, of course, she does very well. Too well, if this incident is anything to go by.
The most egregious thing about this incident is that the implication made by this anonymous Conservative politician is that Rayner – a woman from an ordinary background – must resort to flirtation in order to get ahead because she didn’t go to Oxbridge. If you are a woman who is not from a wealthy background and who dares to succeed in Britain today, the contempt you will face knows no bounds.

The question that really ought to have been asked by the journalist reporting on the anonymous Conservative MP's comments about Boris Johnson being 'distracted' by the deputy leader of the opposition is surely whether a man who could be distracted by a woman in a skirt is fit for high office. 

This is a tale as old as time and such base remarks tell us how far we still have to go.
Sadly, the entire debacle just showed that no matter how powerful a woman becomes, no matter how far she rises in her career, no matter what she overcomes, the fact that she is a woman – with body parts such as legs – is still, inexplicably, more shocking than anything else. If our elected representatives still have the schoolboy mentality of sniggering when they see a woman’s flesh, then quite how we are supposed to trust them with something as serious as running the country is anyone’s guess.
In response to the article, Rayner tweeted: "Women in politics face sexism and misogyny every day – and I’m no different." She added that Boris Johnson "and his cheerleaders clearly have a big problem with women in public life. They should be ashamed of themselves."
She’s right. This week, another Conservative MP has made headlines after being accused by multiple women MPs of watching porn in the House of Commons chamber. And as things stand, 56 MPs – including three Conservative cabinet members – have been reported to a parliamentary watchdog for sexual misconduct
And yet more attention was given to Angela Rayner’s legs. The question that really ought to have been asked by the journalist reporting on the anonymous Conservative MP's comments about Boris Johnson being "distracted" by the deputy leader of the opposition is surely whether a man who could be distracted by a woman in a skirt is fit for high office. 
We rightly expect a lot of politicians: they are supposed to lead by example. If they legitimise sexism, misogyny and class discrimination, they enable and embolden anyone who holds similarly hateful views. Let’s not forget the abuse that women politicians are subjected to outside of Westminster. Rayner herself has received death threats, which has led to her young sons needing police escorts and panic buttons. 
The Me Too movement is now five years old. Politicians are watching porn in front of their colleagues, dozens of MPs think they can sexually harass people with impunity and the most senior woman in the Labour Party has been subjected to vile misogyny because her male colleagues can’t concentrate in the presence of a woman. 
It’s clear that parliament has a problem with sexism. But Westminster’s insidious misogyny, existing as it does in Britain's seat of democracy, is only a reflection of the hatred towards women that still runs through our society. Parliament should be tougher on politicians and staff members who behave misogynistically because if MPs watch pornography at work, demean senior leaders and sexually harass their colleagues it legitimises sexism and sends a clear message to those who hold sexist views: don’t worry about it, women are still fair game.
As the BBC also reported this week, serious sexual offences are taking the longest time on record to go through Crown Courts in England and Wales. Until Westminster cracks down on those who behave badly, Britain will be governed by a culture in which it is permissible to harass, shame and attempt to dominate women because of their gender.

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